Navigating “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes”

by Editors


Navigating “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes”

On view at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA from June 13 to September 7, 2009

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes show at the PEM is a captivating tour through the Seventeenth Century through the lens of the Dutch self-image as a sea-faring people.

As with Dutch genre paintings, it has been known for decades that seascape paintings are not just records of daily life, nor purely aesthetic objects, but that they are nuanced vehicles for deeper meanings.  Walking through the five well-lit and well-ordered galleries of this exhibition gives the viewer a developing sense of the Dutch as explorers, merchants, divinely sanctioned pilgrims, travelers and heroes.

The first three galleries (The Sea-A New Subject; Vistas of the Netherlands; and A Sea of Symbols) are painted in calming blue tones, calling to mind the panoramic vista of sea and sky so innately interwoven with the Dutch consciousness.  Most of the early paintings are highly detailed, sometimes capturing individualized ships in small cabinet pieces for discerning collectors, but also in larger pieces that depict nationalistic scenes for grand public venues.

Walking through these rooms, the styles in the pieces range over time from honey-rich, tonalist pieces of the first decades of the century by artists like Jan Porcellis to more brightly colored, spot lit works by artists like Jan van Goyen.  In the Vistas of the Netherlands gallery, a singular printed map of the world by Justus Danckers is particularly eye-catching: a reminder of the grand aspirations of this tiny, but enterprising nation.

In the Sea of Symbols gallery, it is a Flemish, rather than a Dutch picture, which seduces the eye.  The unattributed work, The Wreck of the Amsterdam, ca. 1630, is ambitious in its size, as well as its subject.  Indicative of its Flemish origin (and perhaps its facture by the elusive Andries van Eertvelt?), the piece is made up of strong local colors and has telltale rhetorical flair, including stylized swirling eddies.  Its Baroque theatricality plays out in the drama of six ships, three foundering in the foreground in dramatic, diagonal thrusts.  The slanting shafts of divine light that break through ominous cloud formations echo the position of these vessels, highlighting the prayerful survivors on the left-hand promontory.  These apocalyptic and redemptive qualities, in conjunction with paired end panels of the Virgin Mary and the seal of the City of Amsterdam on the two foreground ships may portend religious discord, begging the interpretation of the viewer.

The fourth gallery [Far Horizons] switches tone with its ambient Dijon yellow walls; intimating to the viewer that we’ve changed time, place and atmosphere.  This room is dedicated to the Dutch as travelers, and—on the buttery backdrop—the largely cerulean image of The Darsna delle Galere and Castello Nuovo at Naples by Caspar van Wittel, steals the limelight. Upon closer inspection, its clear Mediterranean light and lack of atmospheric envelope indicate a radical shift in locale, taste and artistic sensibility.  Indeed, the painting dates to the waning of the Dutch Golden Age during the Eighteenth Century.  This was a time when the Dutch Seaborne Empire was fading fast in the midst of competition from France and England: and, not just on the seas and trading lanes, but also on the cultural front.  The elite classes among the Dutch bourgeoisie of this period fell under the siren sway of the Grand Tour and followed the Rococo trend towards gentrification and classicism in both subject and tone.

The final gallery [Patronage, Battles and the Exotic] is a cinnabar color, again drawing our attention to a thematic sea change.  This gallery is dominated by nationalist odes—great ocean victories and colonial ports—including a few monochromatic ink-paintings that jump off the dark wall in their ivory-color and scrimshaw-sensibility. Holding court at one end of the room, Ferdinand Bol’s portrait of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter demands our attention.  Posed in a formulaic, if perfectly-pitched pose, the Admiral wears a modish uniform, framed by an enveloping crimson curtain which connects the open harbor view to his left with the globe under his right elbow.  His commanding persona is mostly due to his girth and his tremendously moustachioed visage; Bol understandably falls short of his master, Rembrandt’s, gift for deftly transcribing personality into paint-strokes.

Though the show of seventy compelling works is admirable in its scope and its masterful dedication to the subject of seascape, one might be left wondering about a couple of issues: Why the curators did not intersperse vitrines containing examples of the material culture of mercantile trade and colonial expansion raised by the show (two obvious strengths of the Peabody Essex’s collection); and why more depictions of non-European distant shores and wall text explicating the colonialist drive behind the Dutch East- and West India Companies are missing from the show.  Perhaps this is a function of the available loans from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK, and/or a conscious choice by the curators to focus on the paintings’ iconographic rather than cultural context.

That said, in its intense focus on one multifaceted genre and (virtually) one medium of Dutch art, this show is at once illuminating and enthralling for the connoisseur and amateur art enthusiast alike.


Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is a senior contributing writer & contributing editor of Bread and Circus and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

Image (above): The Wreck of the Amsterdam, c.1630, Anonymous, Oil on canvas, 1257 x 1778mm, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK.